How Vacations Challenge Perceptions

My husband and I are spending a month in Italy. I’ve observed us experiencing a phenomenon that makes me wonder if other couples go through a similar dynamic. Whenever we take a big trip like this, our relationship gets shaken up. Our usual routines and rituals left in California, we have to rediscover ourselves in a new context. In some ways it’s almost like living with a stranger. Who is this man I’m married to?

It usually takes us two or three days to find our bearings and to reconnect in a new way. We have to renegotiate many of the interactions we take for granted at home. What time will we rise? How will we decide on what to do or see once we have awakened? When will be find time to pursue our own individual interests? At home, we have our own schedules already set: I write and teach. My husband teaches and sees patients.

Vacations throw couples together in a vastly different way than what they are accustomed to. No longer can we depend on the various distractions in our lives that help us to manage our days. In a way, we are stripped down and made more vulnerable, forced to dig deeper into ourselves and into the other person. There is less to hide behind, so it’s an opportunity to see our partner freshly.

Major trips also take up a good deal of time in the preparation stage. Getting ready for such a vacation requires a journey of another kind: gathering information about our proposed destinations, making reservations for planes, trains, cars, and accommodations. Already we are so involved in living in this imagined world that when we finally do arrive there, it can be disconcerting. The place we had expected to visit can seem so much different.

The Vatican Museum, which we plowed through this week, didn’t enlarge our cultu1980-01-01 00.01.07ral dimensions, except that we did see the Sistine Chapel, the major attraction there. It was a great disappointment not to have the leisure one expects when visiting a major museum for the first time to linger in front of the art. The crowds were so enormous that it was difficult to stop anywhere. We were just part of a herd being pushed through the place.

Nor did the other sights we had read about live up to your expectations. The Spanish Steps that looked so glamorous in a recent Woody Allen movie were only stairs that a bunch of tourists had claimed. The Trevi Fountain of La Dolce Vita Fame was under construction. No water. No fountain. Just the sculptures overlooking it. I understand that even in the movie, the director created a set to resemble the fountain, so Anita Ekberg and Marcello Mastroianni also didn’t have contact with the real thing.   

What am I suggesting here? Our relationships to others and to the world are often temporary and in flux. I need to expand myself in order to embrace the husband I’ve grown accustomed to. He is a different man in Rome. So am I. Similarly, our perceptions of another country are often romanticized, much different from the reality. Therefore, spending time there can bring us to a more realistic vision of the world, one where we too are ever evolving.

Have others had similar experiences?

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